An English broadcaster and comedic personality, Charlie Brooker is best known internationally for creating Black Mirror, the BAFTA Award-winning, Netflix original anthology series that has shaken the world with its varied, ever daunting portraits of a technologically-driven near future.
In the series—a wide-ranging work of speculative fiction, which has proven prescient more than once—each episode employs a different cast of actors to explore themes linked to the collision of mankind with the unforgiving technology they have created.
While Season 3 was, for the most part, typically macabre—including a portrait of a woman driven to insanity by the quest for social media gratification—the third installment also included “San Junipero,” an atypically sentimental love story involving a man-made Heaven on Earth.
Speaking with Deadline while in production on the series’ upcoming fourth season, Brooker touches on his reputation for delivering prescient fiction and what we can expect from Season 4.
Where does the concept of Black Mirror originate?
For me, it was nostalgia. I remembered growing up enjoying shows—we had The Twilight Zone late at night in the U.K., but we also had Tales of the Unexpected [an often sinister British anthology series from the mind of Roald Dahl; and the BBC used to show lots of one-off, weird and wonderful sort of TV plays. It was always something that I admired and enjoyed when I was younger, these idea-based dramas.
I think this is a way in which you can explore lots of interesting concepts and reinvent the show from week to week—episode to episode, really—in the brave new world of streaming.
Hopefully, you get the best of both worlds, in that you get a lot of ideas, and a lot of idiosyncratic content being explored, but you also get novelty, and it’s not a huge commitment if you’re a viewer. You can become commitment-phobic in this day and age—you can sort of think, “I’ve been told I’ve got to watch The Good Wife, and there’s like 17 seasons of it. When is it too late for me to jump in? At what point is the amount of available footage going to dwarf my remaining lifespan?”
Black Mirror often feels frighteningly prescient. Do you see the series as a document of our times?
It’s interesting—the first season was 2011. That’s six years old now, and I kind of feel that they still feel relevant. Or in some cases, we’ve been proven correct.
Perhaps weirdly, I try not to think about the timeliness of the stories a lot of the time. I’m thinking about the ‘What if?’ scenario, and in doing that, there are things that are clearly influenced by what’s going on in the world at the moment.
I was toying with an idea for this season coming up that was literally torn from today’s headlines, and I kind of thought, Well, the problem is, things are moving so quickly at the moment; who can say where we’ll be in six months? I wouldn’t want to, in a way, in case I ended up doing something that looked massively dated. I’ve probably gone more conceptual with the next season, partly because I think the world became so unpredictable. It would be a fools errand, trying to see which way things are going to land.
I think a lot of the timeliness is accidental. You just think, well, I’ve got an idea that’s floating around, and then either the time feels right, or just in the writing of it, you realize, Oh, that’s got a resonance here. So you can kind of seed in other details.
But there’s been things where I’ve not been thinking in any way about the timeliness of it, and then nine months after the episode goes up, something happens in the real world that’s terrifyingly similar. So that aspect of it, I find mildly terrifying.
So no chance Trump’s unique style of Presidency is going to reflect in the show?
Well, it’s an interesting one. We had kind of a dry run in the UK because we had Brexit, so if you were one of the 48 percent who publicly didn’t vote for Brexit, you got your shot out early in 2016. That was a sort of psychological test run for Trump, I guess.
On a personal level, I thought, I don’t know how much bleak nihilism I want to wallow in. So in a way, I’ve possibly reacted by tackling some slightly more esoteric subjects, because I’ve been writing this season over the last couple of months. It’s still hard to see how that’s all going to pan out.
It probably meant that I retreated slightly more into my own head because the outside world’s been so much more dangerous all of a sudden.
It’s a weird one, because when I’m not doing Black Mirror, I do comedy shows in the U. I had a bit that I did in this end-of-year show where we were just commenting on the pointlessness of satire—the meaninglessness of it when you’re faced with what’s going on in the world at the moment. I kind of feel like until the dust settles, it’s hard to see.
I find it hard to fathom exactly how you would tackle that in a way that would seem more far-fetched than reality, you know? I kind of feel like you’ve got to let the skittles fall a little before going, “Okay, what’s going on here?” and then sort of tackling it.
There may be the odd reference—I’m not sure—but very oblique. It’s sort of early days, isn’t it, really? Surely, everyone’s struggling to know quite how to deal with it. Obviously, you’ve got shows like SNL—which isn’t shown in the UK, but we see clips of it now online. And obviously, they’ve been doing a pretty amazing job. They seem to have risen to the challenge. Unless you’ve got that degree of week-by-week topicality, it’s hard to know how you’d tackle something this crazy.
Season 3’s “San Junipero” has been heralded as an antidote to current events, flying tonally in the face of the show that we’ve come to know. How did that episode develop for you?
I’d been thinking about how we might do a period episode, just because it was surprising, and then I read about nostalgia therapy, which is the thing that they do for people with Alzheimer’s, and things like that. People find it comforting. It does people a world of good, by all accounts, and what I was conscious of in thinking of that story was, when I first came up with the treatment, it was a heterosexual couple. Then, I kind of felt like, Well, hang on a minute—what would be more surprising in 1987?
It stemmed from there, and then you have a thing going on in the story about people getting a chance to live their lives again, as it were; in Yorkie’s case, kind of for the first time, and in Kelly’s case, a second time around.
It felt much more poignant, and I guess if it was saying anything, it was saying who you love is irrelevant, and that is immaterial in this world, or should be. Your age and your gender and all of these things are kind of meaningless, and love is love, which is a very positive message for a Black Mirror episode, which is one thing I liked and did want to embrace.
I was extremely gratified to see that it got the reaction it did because I remember when we first screened it in Toronto, and I was slightly worried that maybe people weren’t getting it. It was pretty quickly after the season went up that people started latching on to that, and it was like a klaxon went out amongst a certain group of viewers. There were certain people who really took it to heart because it was a positive representation of characters who weren’t doomed to an unhappy ending.
It’s very gratifying, to see that result, because apart from anything else, I’m a straight white guy, and while writing it, I’m like, Am I going to get away with this? Am I being clumsy here? I don’t know—I can only write as universally as I hope to.
It was extremely gratifying that people find it comforting and uplifting because that was intentional, and it was intentionally kind of sentimental, I hope in a good way. The only downside of it to me is that I think we really did hit the home run there; you can’t replicate that. You can’t just try and do that story again. So it’s now haunting me. [laughs]
Between “San Junipero” and Season 2’s beloved “Be Right Back,” director Owen Harris is behind two of the series’ notable love stories. What made him the right director to take on these episodes?
I think he’s very good with performers—he’s a softie, I think by his own admission. [laughs] He gravitates, in terms of Black Mirror scenarios, towards the ones that are more tender, the ones that are relationship-based. There’s a lot of heartache in there, a lot of the softer side, but there’s also a darkness and a poignancy there. I think he’s got a good eye for those authentic, bittersweet and painful moments.
There’s a confidence there, and when it came to “San Junipero,” he’s a big fan of a lot of ‘80s movies, and so he was keen to give it that flavor, which suited the whole piece. It’s interesting—when you’re writing the script, you picture the end result in your head, and now that I look at those episodes, I can’t remember what I was seeing in my head when I was writing them, because what he’s come up with there is the same, but way better, if that makes sense.
With your Season 4 premiere date as yet unannounced, where are you in the process, and what can we expect from the next run of stories?
I can say that we’re currently shooting the fourth one in London—and when I say “the fourth one,” that’s not necessarily the order in which they’ll go up.
The one thing I can say is that it’s the same, in that it’s completely different, again. I don’t think any of them are the same as any stories we’ve done before, and genre-wise, they’re mighty different as well. I think length-wise, there’s going to be more variance. That’s so boring, though—I wish I had a better revelation. [laughs]
I can’t really say much else, except I think there’s quite a lot of stuff that’s quite out there. I don’t know if I’ve lost touch with reality, or what. But then what often tends to happen is I think, Oh my God, this is completely and utterly farfetched, and then reality catches up. So I was consciously trying to cast further afield, I think, in terms of what stories we’re doing. And partly also because I think I was so terrified about the state of the world, I thought, I’m going to entertain myself by having some kooky thoughts.